Lee Becomes General-in-Chief

February 11, 1865 – Robert E. Lee issued his first order as the new general-in-chief of the Confederacy.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

As the Battle of Hatcher’s Run took place and Lee attended Sunday church services in Petersburg, a messenger unofficially informed him that Confederate President Jefferson Davis would make him the Confederacy’s first general-in-chief the next day.[1]

On February 6, Davis issued orders confirming Lee’s appointment, in accordance with the act of the Confederate Congress passed on January 26. Lee ostensibly took overall command of all Confederate armies away from Davis and his military staff; Davis had long been criticized for micromanaging the military, and many hoped that Lee’s appointment would diminish Davis’s influence over military strategy.[2]

However, Lee faced a nearly hopeless situation. Desertion pervaded the Confederate ranks, with many hungry, cold, and inadequately clothed soldiers answering letters from desperate relatives under attack by Federal invaders. Moreover, Davis did not surrender control over the military to Lee as many had hoped. Because Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the verge of collapse, Lee continued directing his main attention on that campaign.[3]

To further silence his critics, Davis also appointed Major General (and former U.S. Vice President) John C. Breckinridge as secretary of war. Breckinridge quickly worked with Lee to improve the transport of food and supplies to Lee’s hungry army outside Petersburg and Richmond. However, the main focus of Breckinridge and Lee remained on Lee’s army, leaving Davis to continue exerting main control over the remaining Confederate armies. Out of respect for his friendship with Davis, Lee deferred to the president rather than take a more assertive role in his new position.[4]

Lee assumed his new role as general-in-chief on February 9. Two days later, he issued his first order with Davis’s approval, in which he issued pardons to all deserters if they returned to their ranks within 20 days.[5]

Lee also declared that the Confederacy’s choice was now “between war and abject submission,” and “to such a proposal brave men with arms in their hands can have but one answer. They cannot barter manhood for peace, nor the right of self-government for life or property… Taking new resolution from the fate which our enemies intend for us, let every man devote all his energies to the common defense. Our resources, wisely and vigorously employed, are ample, and with a brave army, sustained by a determined and united people, success with God’s assistance cannot be doubtful… Let us then oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.”[6]

To the misfortune of southerners, the appointments of Lee and Breckinridge came too late to affect the war’s outcome.[7]

—–

  • [1] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16389-16399
  • [2] Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 24-26; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16079-16089
  • [3] Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 356-58; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 457
  • [4] Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 24-26; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 457
  • [5] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 636-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16432-16452
  • [6] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 636-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16432-16452
  • [7] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635
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